COVID didn’t need an enviro-humanitarian crisis to become a global scourge, but the worsening situation in Northeastern Kenya underscores that crises of the future may require rapid "one health" responses without which they could increasingly give rise to global calamities.
Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) lie mostly in the northern and eastern parts of the country. In recent years, they have experienced severe drought conditions. These conditions, alongside conflict, poverty, land conversion, poaching and a variety of other challenges, have resulted in an alarming mix of famine, increased discord and growing devastation to wildlife and ecosystems. Experts project that this year’s short rain season (October-December) will bring little relief, causing drought conditions to worsen. Already an estimated 2.1 million Kenyans suffer extreme drought with many at risk of starvation. More than 2.4 million residents are expected to experience such conditions by the end of November.
The suffering of livestock animals has been well-documented during the crisis, many starving, dying of thirst, or succumbing to disease. Less well-documented has been the hardship facing wildlife. Fleeing conflict areas, seeking dwindling habitat, and driven away from increasing numbers of farm fields and other human settlements, giraffe, antelope, buffalo, and a variety of other native wildlife have crowded into protected areas and surrounding lands. Jam-packed, they have become more susceptible to disease and parasites and more prone to fight each other for territory and mates. The Somali Giraffe Project recently documented, “…perhaps the most gruesome giraffe battle…” in which two male giraffes necked each other through busy road traffic resulting in both becoming exhausted and immobile. Nearby farm workers, desperate for meat, gathered knives and machetes, ready to take advantage of the debilitated giraffe, only deterred when Kenya Wildlife Service staff arrived to safeguard the animals until they recovered.
Human-wildlife conflict has dramatically increased in the area. With less habitat, declining water sources and fear of human-human conflict areas, wildlife encroach onto farms and fields more frequently and are more vulnerable to attacks by people. What’s more, as livestock and other food sources contract, bushmeat poachers seize opportunities to harvest wildlife and sell their flesh to willing buyers who seek alternatives to higher and higher priced livestock meat. In September, three poachers were arrested in Garissa County with an entire butchered giraffe in their car.
When it comes to wildlife, Northeastern Kenya is home to unique and endangered creatures. These animals are increasingly jeopardized as drought conditions worsen and related hazards increase. In late 2020, the only known female white giraffe in Kenya and its calf were found killed. Hirola, the most endangered antelope in the world, residing only in this region, as well as the beleaguered reticulated giraffe, have been documented with diseases that likely originated from livestock.
Drought. Famine. Human-human conflict. Human-wildlife conflict. Humans, livestock, wildlife all crowding closer and closer together, malnourished, and susceptible to a wide variety of maladies – it doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine a novel zoonotic disease passing from wildlife to humans or to their livestock and leading to a pandemic that threatens all the above locally and globally.
The situation is clearly a One Health crisis that, if time, resources, systems, structures, practices and will were available, an expedited, all-hands-on-deck intervention would be appropriate and perhaps necessary to apply. And, of course, the socio-political, security, criminal and combative elements of the crisis add a level of complexity that inhibits rapid action. It makes me wonder if and how the One Health community and all the necessary disciplines within it might collectively develop quickly-applied remedies for such desperate situations. As effects of climate change continue to amplify the burdens of already-degraded, slim-resourced, conflict-ridden areas, it seems imperative that we do. Otherwise, the cases of local crises turning into global ones may become all too frequent.